When Mr. O’Connell first renovated and advertised the 28 acres, the low rent attracted a lot of attention. “Businesses would call up, but when they asked about the location, and I said, ‘Red Hook,’ the other end of the phone usually went silent.” He built up the property tenant by tenant, starting with the smaller spaces and refinancing as he went along.
Since that time, Mr. O’Connell has seen the city’s fortunes reversed, and his waterfront property has become the backbone of a revitalized Red Hook. The property, in part, forms the terminus of Van Brunt Street, Red Hook’s main drag; and Mr. O’Connell is by far the area’s largest landowner, holding about one million square feet. His piers house 150 businesses that employ 1,200 workers. The capstone of his portfolio lies next to the piers: a Fairway supermarket that he developed out of an abandoned building purchased from the city’s Economic Development Corporation and opened in 2006.
Mr. O’Connell’s critics claim he has taken advantage of the community.
“When he acquired the pier, he promised a park, a half-mile public esplanade, promised to support housing because we had lost all our housing,” Mr. McGettrick said. “He reneged on all of those promises.”
The Fifth Avenue Committee just completed a lottery for 60 units of affordable housing in Red Hook, the largest influx of affordable housing to the area in years. Mr. O’Connell provided 16 of the 22 lots involved at below-market rates. There were over 5,000 applicants for the 60 units.
No park has materialized, however, and Mr. O’Connell keeps the pier gated at night. But during the day, he opens the property to the public. On a recent weekend, dozens of tourists strolled along his pier, stopping at a crafts fair and peeking in on an art show thrown by Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition, in a space Mr. O’Connell donated to the group. A woman with a thick German accent turned to her husband. “Ve must see the Fairway before we get back on ze boat.”
Lou Sones, a longtime community activist, was one of many Red Hook residents initially opposed to the Fairway: “I changed my mind after seeing the amount of people and interest it brought into the community.” He’s not so forgiving about the new Ikea, a project Mr. O’Connell supported. “Did Fairway spawn the Ikea? Absolutely. It set a precedent for big-box stores on the waterfront.”
Mr. O’Connell supported Ikea in spite of traffic concerns because of the 600 jobs it would bring—unemployment in the Red Hook housing projects is 18 percent—but he says his heart remains with small business. He has become friends with his tenant Robert Kalin, the founder of Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade goods, and donated space in the pier for Etsy.org, the company’s nonprofit arm.
“I don’t use e-mail, computers; I don’t get that stuff, but I can feel what he’s talking about,” Mr. O’Connell said. “At 66, people think you’re ready for the rocking chair, but I’m not.”
The pair are looking to create local, human-scale manufacturing. “We could produce the stuff here and stamp it ‘Made in Red Hook’ then sell it on Etsy,” said Mr. O’Connell, breaking into a big smile. “It’s exciting to think what we’re doing here would go out to people around the world.”